Senator Gets Lesson on How Free Speech Works After Complaining About Elon Musk's Takeover of Twitter


These people don’t just tell lies; they tell whoppers.

The latest is Democrat Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, who tweeted “Free speech does not include spreading misinformation to downplay political violence.”

Ah, where to begin?

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Let’s start with saying the First Amendment does not, in general, outlaw spreading of misinformation. We’ll come back to that in a moment.

Secondly, Durbin talks of downplaying political violence. That’s a reference to a comment made by new Twitter owner Elon Musk about the recent brutal attack on Paul Pelosi, husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“In the days since Musk took Twitter private, the platform has seen an uptick in hate speech, and Musk himself used the platform and his influence to spread a baseless conspiracy theory about a violent attack on an elected official’s business,” Durbin tweeted.

In a tweet, Musk shared a link pushing unsubstantiated theories about the attack on Pelosi. Following heavy criticism, he removed the tweet.

The only hate speech surrounding the attack of which I am aware are claims by Democrats that former President Donald Trump broke into the Pelosi residence and personally attacked Paul Pelosi.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration – misinformation, if you will – but it makes a point about the tone Democrats have adopted in that they are repeating the claim that hate speech by Republicans prompted the attack on Pelosi.

That’s false, of course. But can they legally say that? According to the First Amendment: yes.

Attempting to marshal his case, Durbin provides a link to a Wikipedia site, which he says shows limits to the First Amendment, implying such limits should be imposed on Musk and others.

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Of course, reading of the link shows no such thing. Yes, it says there are limits to free speech which “include obscenity, fraud, child pornography, speech integral to illegal conduct, speech that incites imminent lawless action, speech that violates intellectual property law, true threats, and commercial speech such as advertising.

“Defamation that causes harm to reputation is a tort and also an exception to free speech,” the Wikipedia entry says.

And there are civil and criminal liabilities in certain “false statements of fact,” which mainly have to do with libel and slander and negligence.

Tellingly, “lies about the government” are for the most part completely protected by the First Amendment, Wikipedia says. And the courts give wide berth to false statements about public figures.

Do you think Elon Musk will actually be an advocate for free speech on Twitter?

Durbin’s dubious claims about First Amendment limitations launched a tirade of criticism.

Republican Congressman Dan Crenshaw of Texas tweeted the First Amendment literally does allow spreading what some would call misinformation. “You’re a big boy (and a lawyer I thought…?) Correct the narrative. I have to do it everyday when you yahoos try to tell the people the Inflation Reduction Act reduces inflation, or when you claim there’s no such thing as gender.”

Marketer Caleb Hull, in refering to Durbin’s criticism of misinformation, tweeted “You just described CNN” as the cable network showed fiery Kenosha, Wisconsin, rioting  with the label “mostly peaceful protests.”

“Yes it does,” tweeted Babylon Bee Managing Editor Joel Berry regarding First Amendment allowance to spread information, true or false. “And you ought to know since that’s what you did for two years while this country burned.”

“We simply must start electing people with at least a minimal level of civil literacy. This is not that. Embarrassingly not that,” tweeted First Amendment lawyer Ari Cohn.

A generation ago, there was general respect for the First Amendment. To be sure, there occasionally would be a politician of some kind who wanted to require journalists to have licenses or some such thing.

And there were lots of politicians who liked the First Amendment only when they got good press.

But for the most part, the First Amendment was considered to be off limits. And the news media were zealous in guarding it, knowing it was the charter under which they operated.

But that’s all changed. Now media cozy up to their political masters and together they work to stamp out what they see as the evil of free speech.

Dick Durbin’s desire to limit free expression is nothing new. Guys like this have always been around. The Founders knew that.

It’s no accident that our freedom of speech, thought, religion and more are expressed in the Bill of Rights amendment that’s at the very top.

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Mike Landry, PhD, is a retired business professor. He has been a journalist, broadcaster and church pastor. He writes from Northwest Arkansas on current events and business history.
Mike Landry, PhD, is a retired business professor. He has been a journalist, broadcaster and church pastor. He writes from Northwest Arkansas on current events and business history.